Mr. X, With a Knife, in the Barroom : THE RECKONING: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe, By Charles Nicholl (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $24.95; 432 pp.)

Christopher Hitchens is critic-at-large for Vanity Fair. His most recent book is a collection of essays, "For the Sake of Argument."

The title of this enthralling book already contains a sort of triple-entendre. The reckoning --which has the same etymological origin as the score --is the series of scratch-marks by which English landlords kept an account of their customers' eating and drinking. It has thus, with its verb accompaniment to settle, become an ideal metaphor in matters of crime and vengeance. It can also mean a final summing-up, as by a historian or investigator. And young "Kit" Marlowe, as everybody knows or thinks they know, was killed in a tavern brawl about the time the bill was being presented.

Charles Nicholl's entire narrative has the faculty of being able to operate at several different levels. He makes use of the novelistic gifts he displayed in "The Fruit Palace," as well as the penchant for conspiracy he displayed in that same book.

To this he has added a feeling for history, especially of the High Elizabethan period in which England was riven by factions, both religious and political, and when the rudiments of a modern secret police battled the rudiments of an authentic foreign-backed subversion. Finally, his literary sensibility and his awareness of the theatrical tradition help keep the pages turning.

First ask yourself what you can truly say you know about Christopher Marlowe. That he was a playwright to rank with Shakespeare (there is even a sub-group of the Bacon and Oxford authorship schools that credits him with some of Will's imperishable canon). That he was gay and a smoker of Sir Walter Raleigh's wondrous import from Virginia ("All they who love not tobacco and boys are fools"). That he is remembered for some lines in common use ("Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?" and, I would add to Nicholl's index, the equally telling question: "Is it not passing great to be a king, and ride in triumph through Persepolis?"). What else? Practically nothing, I would guess, except the intelligence that he was stabbed in an alehouse. And "intelligence," for this fact, might be the apt description.

Marlowe, as Nicholl shows from the scrupulous reconstruction of old records and documents, was an amateur and very rash participant in the milieu of Elizabethan espionage. The wilderness of mirrors and the looking-glass world had nothing on this hectic, vicious and treacherous period. The only thing it has in common with the Cold War spy-thriller is the fact (of which Nicholl might have made a bit more) that the protagonist is gay and was educated at Cambridge University.

The great spymaster of the day was Sir Francis Walsingham, who with rack and rope and paid informer chased down the English Catholics suspected of aiding the vile designs of the King of Spain. (He was a favorite villain of Evelyn Waugh's and, interestingly, of Graham Greene's also.) Marlowe was from a Catholic background which is why, Nicholl believes, he was recruited as a "double" agent. But like many spies Marlowe may also have believed himself cleverer than his masters. He was quite happy to act as a hammer to the Catholics, not because he was a self-hater or a turncoat or a Protestant but because he was an atheist. The price to be paid for that version of dissent was higher, during an inter-Christian religious conflict, than any mere heresy. But perhaps Marlowe thought he was clever enough to get away with anything.

If he did, then he was wrong. The main area of overseas espionage work in that period was the Netherlands, or Low Countries, where Catholic-Protestant hostility was also at a horrific pitch and where both the Spanish and English crowns had proxies fighting for them. Following Nicholl's intricate but beautifully composed deductive writing, I think we can now suppose that Marlowe was sent to the Dutch town of Flushing on some obscure mission, that he got into trouble there, on a bizarre charge of forging money and that one of his cellmates, who was also a spy, later bore witness against him as a man who blasphemed against religion. Marlowe was thus living dangerously both as a sexual deviant and an offender against the faith, and though his cleverness and most probably his connections got him out of Flushing jail he may have begun to believe himself too lucky to be caught. We have met the type before in literature--the roistering blade who laughs at his clumsy, plodding antagonists.

But the plodders have a dismal tendency to win in the end. And Marlowe was tempting fate by getting caught up in the great three-cornered palace intrigue between Sir Walter Raleigh, the Earl of Essex and the queen for whom they both vied in point of favor and patronage. Raleigh, too, was accused by his numerous and jealous enemies of sympathy for atheism. Nicholl speculates, very convincingly on the evidence, that Marlowe's more flamboyant heathenism and libertinism was employed as a means of discrediting Raleigh; of allowing the Essex faction to indict Raleigh by association.

Thus the denouement approaches, and I probably should not spoil it for you (this is, after all, a thriller) except to say that Marlowe was most probably not killed in the tavern, and that the provocation was not a fight over the score or reckoning, and that a cover-story was hastily put in place and has lasted ever since. The truth, as Josephine Tey famously said in her novelistic exculpation of the framed Richard III, is "a daughter of time." Enough time has elapsed, and sufficient new records have been opened or unearthed, for a long look at the Marlowe story, and for a well-grounded revisionism.

Even if you have no desperate need to re-examine the truth of Marlowe's death in the light of a murder mystery, you will discover in these pages a truly Shakespearean cast of pickpockets, boasters, boozers, posturing aristos, false priests and phony judges, official torturers and charming rogues. And how contemporary they all seem. Had Marlowe lived he might have come down to us as a less fastidious Shelley, boldly scorning the false idols and superstitions of his day. From this attainment he has been shrouded, because of his murky life and sordid end. Nicholl's accomplishment is to have wiped away some of the smears and cobwebs, and restored a portrait that has been disfigured for too long.

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